It was Friday morning, just after 6 a.m., as the sky started to brighten. Ironman triathlete Matt Gervais and a friend entered the waters of Lake St. Clair near Tecumseh, Ont. for a three-kilometre swim.
With pools closed due to the pandemic, Gervais swam this route often, sometimes three times a week. The water that morning was murky, churned up by rain. The two athletes swam parallel to the shore, approximately 90 metres out.
“I was a little bit in front of [my friend],” Gervais says, “which I was grateful for.” About 500 metres into the swim, on a downstroke, Gervais felt an intense pain in his right hand. “Almost like a burning sensation,” he says.
Gervais stuck his face into the water and peered at his right hand through his goggles. Despite limited visibility, he could make out the head of a muskie with its teeth buried in his skin.
“With my left hand, I grabbed the fish, probably two feet back from its head. It was big,” he says. “I pulled it off real quick.” He guesses the interaction was less than five seconds.
Along the shore were houses that backed onto Lake St. Clair. With the help of his friend, Gervais clambered up a steel ladder onto a stranger’s patio. The homeowner heard Gervais yelling and emerged from the house to find two strangers in his backyard. “He came out and dumped some water on [my hand],” Gervais says. “I got to see what I was dealing with. It wasn’t pretty.”
“I ended up going to a local urgent care clinic where I know they do stitches,” Gervais says. He received 13 sutures.
Muskie attacks are rare, but they do happen, says Adam Weir, a fisheries biologist for the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH). “Every year there are reports of them attacking people and dogs.”
Last year a Winnipeg woman was attacked while in chest-deep water near Kenora, Ont.
According to Weir, muskies—which can weigh in excess of 60 pounds— are large, apex predators that live in a variety of habitats, including shallow, weedy water, deep water, and, even streams and wetlands.
“Muskies are colloquially referred to as ‘water wolves,’ and use their acute vision and special sensory organs to pick up on movements for ambushing prey, that includes other fish but also muskrats and waterfowl,” he says. “It comes as no surprise that a muskie might see the movement or flash, for example, of a person’s foot or hand and mistake it for food.”
Regardless of the muskie’s predatory nature, Weir says people shouldn’t be concerned about the fish. “Muskies are more inclined to take off and swim away than taking a bite out of you.”
Gervais shares this opinion. He understands that this was an uncommon occurrence. “People have an irrational fear of open water,” he says. “For the most part, there’s nothing out to get you. It’s just mistaken identity.”
Assuming Gervais’s hand heals in time, he plans to be back in the water two weeks from now, competing in the Muskoka Half IRONMAN.